William C. Merka, a research instrumentation specialist in the Texas A&M Department of Chemistry, has dedicated his career to the art of creating custom glassware with fire and air.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Texas A&M Science's spring 2004 issue of "DATELINE: discovery" featured a story on an essential element in Texas A&M Chemistry -- glass blowing and, more specfically, the master behind this ancient and often underappreciated art, Bill Merka, a 2014 Outstanding Staff Achievement Award recipient. Thanks to another invaluable campus resource, the Texas A&M Libraries, we have the perfect package if not uniquely Aggie reason to rescue this one from the vault: tradition.

While it's certainly true that pioneering professors the likes of Arthur E. Martell, A. Ian Scott, Sir Derek Barton, F. Albert Cotton and D. Wayne Goodman helped define specific branches of chemistry at Texas A&M and within the chemical sciences during the past 50 years, they would be nothing without their glassware.

Here's to torchbearers like you, Mr. Merka, and to what you so beautifully do behind the scenes for so many! We'd raise a glass, but you'd probably just have to make it first. ...

If you go to the basement of the '86 wing of the Texas A&M University Chemistry Building and walk into the Glass Shop, you will usually see the methane torch fired up. Next to it will be Bill Merka, research instrumentation specialist, who regularly spends his days hunched over the flame with glass in hand, forming the next part of his current project. His job? Creating custom glassware, the sort that cannot be bought out of a catalog, including many pieces which are one-of-a-kind items.

The glass shop was started by Jack Shannon in 1961, where he was soon joined by his brother Jerry Shannon and later his son Sean Shannon. Merka started as an apprentice with the Shannons in 1985. After six years, he felt he could do 75 percent of the jobs that came into the shop.

"As in research, your skills evolve," Merka said. "New things come along all the time, which make it exciting, plus I like the challenge."

Watch a 1980 segment from the nationally sydicated television show PM Magazine on the glass shop in the 1970s on YouTube. "I've had the tape a long time, but this is the first time I've seen it," Merka said. "It is a fantastic glimpse into the past of the shop and the department. These guys shaped my life as well as the department." One of those guys, Jerry Shannon, built current Texas A&M Department of Chemistry Head Dr. Simon W. North's first experimental apparatus and "was very nice to me when I arrived" at Texas A&M back in 1997, according to North.

Merka says that professors and graduate students come into the shop with ideas, and he works with them to come up with something useable. It can be as simple as an adapter, or as complex as an apparatus with a very intricate design -- one that might include inert gasses, cryogenic vessels, hi-vacuum manifolds or anything that may be needed for teaching or research.

Merka stays up-to-date with what is on the market and can reproduce most of those items, along with those that can't be found anywhere else. He also has to understand the process of chemistry and forces that make the items work.

"All my work is done by hand, and it is more of an art form," Merka said. "It isn't just measure here and cut there."

Merka demonstrated the forming process by blowing on one end of a piece of glass after heating it up on the blue flame. He broke the bubble, revealing paper-thin glass that crumbled like confetti. He said that there are many days when his work boots sparkle from the fallout when he goes home at night.

The second purpose of the shop is the repair of existing items, which saves money as well as time. The rows of jobs waiting in line testify to this, with more coming in each day.

Over time, Merka's work has branched out into many different things. He can even weld metal such as platinum, tungsten and heating coils onto glass. He can also make the glass containers vacuum tight. He mostly works in Pyrex glass, but some items are made from quartz. The larger jobs are usually a collaboration of smaller techniques.

The shop receives approximately 2,500 to 3,000 work orders per year. The Department of Chemistry is his main customer, but he has completed jobs for the Department of Physics, the Department of Geology and other units on campus, as well as some for universities within The Texas A&M University System, such as Prairie View A&M.

"I worked with the Citrus Center in Kingsville through faxes and e-mails to get their items to correct specifications," Merka said.

Hear Merka describe how he got his start in glass blowing, courtesy of the Shannon family in the inagural episode of I Am Texas A&M Science dedicated to staff and their career motivations:

While Merka is the only professional glass blower, he does have one student worker at the present -- Ray Dulock, an economics major who says with a grin that he will hopefully also soon be a business minor.

"Ray handles the paperwork, orders and the students," Merka said. "He is even learning some glass blowing."

Dulock was recently "awarded" the job of making 500 small glass tubes. He did admit that it took him a while to complete that job.

"Ray runs interference for me," Merka said, "because with glasswork, you can't just turn off what you are working on like you would a regular machine."

Merka has been a permanent fixture at the shop for 19 years and says it is still fun. He also says there are too many jobs to pinpoint a most interesting one. Currently, he's working on a vacuum line for which he's had to build specific parts.

"We make a lot friends with the professors and students here in the shop," Merka said. "We once made items for a professor who moved to Austria."

Merka says you would think that of all places, he could have found an Austrian glass blower to work for him, but he still shipped things back to the shop for Merka to fix.

With the fire blazing, Merka tackles the next job at hand. When asked if he ever gets burned by the flames, he replies with a smile, "Not anymore."

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See additional photographs of Merka and the Texas A&M Glass Shop within the Texas A&M Science Flickr archive.

Also see a related feature story in the


Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or shutchins@science.tamu.edu or William C. Merka, (979) 845-2735 or merka@tamu.edu

Schaub Pat

  • Merka's day-to-day involves working closely with instructional and research personnel in the design and construction of glass and quartz scientific apparatus and new systems for specific applications and experiments to serve not only the chemistry department but also the entire Texas A&M campus in a most critical capacity for a tier one esearch institution.

  • "The Department of Chemistry can attribute much of its progress to Bill Merka, who has devoted himself to the task of getting things done," said his 2014 college staff award nominator. As another colleague put it, "I have never heard Bill say, 'Sorry, I cannot make this; it is too complicated.'"

  • The tools of Merka's trade.

  • An example of Merka's handiwork in use within Texas A&M chemist Michael Nippe's laboratory, one of the more than 200 he supplies throughout the department and across campus.

  • Merka is renowned as a capable and caring mentor across Texas A&M University and the state of Texas, contributing to his profession as well as Texas A&M's visibility as an active member of the American Scientific Glass Blowing Society for the past two decades.

© Texas A&M University. To request use of any of our photographs for educational use or to view additional options from our archive, please contact the College of Science Communications Office.

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